Holiday Album Guide 2020

Perhaps it’s because music acts were forced off of the touring circuit, leaving unplanned time to work on albums or other projects, but 2020 has been a bountiful year for holiday music. This column covers many of the full-length holiday albums, although I left out the EPs and singles for fear the column would reach “War & Peace” length. Here’s hoping these holiday albums help you end this strange and challenging year on a high note.

Carrie Underwood: “My Gift” – The current queen of country music takes her first holiday album in a decidedly spiritual/worship direction. Familiar hymns make up much of the album, but the biggest highlights come with the original songs – none more than “Hallelujah,” a song co-written by John Legend. He joins Underwood on this standout ballad in which their impressive vocals send the song soaring to the heavens. This season’s most likely blockbuster holiday release, “My Gift” is a beautifully executed album that pays tribute to the true reason for Christmas.


Meghan Trainor: “A Very Trainor Christmas” – Trainor brings her buoyant charm to this 16-track album, especially putting her stamp on the season with a half-dozen original songs. A major highlight is her collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire” on the song “Holidays,” which quite literally illustrates the connecting threads between ‘70s R&B/pop and current-day pop. Trainor also adds a few original touches to some of the holiday standards on the album, making “A Very Trainor Christmas” more fun and original than many holiday albums.


Dolly Parton: “A Holly Dolly Christmas” – Parton makes “A Holly Dolly Christmas” a bit of an event. For one thing, she wrote five of the songs and co-wrote a sixth for this 12-song album. While all of the original tunes are good, “Circle Of Love,” a particularly pretty, spiritually-themed ballad, is a high point. Several big-name guests (including Michael Buble and Willie Nelson) also help “A Holly Dolly Christmas” feel more momentous than the usual holiday album.


Leslie Odom Jr.: “The Christmas Album” – The star of “Hamilton” steps well outside the usual-Christmas-album box on his second holiday album. On “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” he slows things down and gives the song a bit of a jazzy treatment. “Little Drummer Boy,” with additional vocals from the Mzansi Youth Choir, puts a South African accent on this classic. Like Bing Crosby, Odom’s supple and smooth vocals have a comforting quality, and it wouldn’t be surprising if “The Christmas Album” (as well as his first holiday album, “Simply Christmas”) get played annually in households for many holiday seasons to come.


For King & Country: “A Drummer Boy Christmas” – The sibling duo of Joel and Luke Smallbone brings plenty of heft to such standards as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” What’s more, they also markedly reshape the arrangements of many of the familiar hymns, adding creative instrumental segments and inventive backing vocal parts. This makes “A Drummer Boy Christmas” the most refreshing, while still reverential, Christmas album of this season.


Black Violin – “Give Thanks” – This duo brings their unique mix of classical and hip-hop to this 11-track album. Most of the songs are reimagined versions of holiday classics that get hip-hop grooves and some elaboration on their familiar melodies with the violins of Kevin Marcus and Wil Baptiste. But a few originals (“Celebra,” featuring De La Ghetto and the humorous story of “Toy Soldier” are highlights) up the ante on this enjoyable outing.

Pentatonix: “We Need A Little Christmas”—This sixth holiday release from this popular a cappella group sounds overproduced, overlayered and overtreated, with frothy vocal arrangements that sound like they were created during the 1950s and cleared by TV network censors. And don’t get me started about the Bing Crosby version of “White Christmas.” We may need a little Christmas, but we don’t need this flawed album.

Matt Nathanson: “Farewell December” – Nathanson deserves credit for choosing covers such as “Father Christmas” by the Kinks, “I Believe In Father Christmas” by Greg Lake and “Snow” by Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately, Nathanson isn’t terribly imaginative with his versions, making this a well intended, yet unexceptional holiday album.

Want more Christmas music this year? I can recommend a cappella group Straight No Chaser’s “Social Christmasing” with its creative takes on holiday music; Tori Kelly’s soulful “A Tori Kelly Christmas”; the Goo Goo Dolls: “It’s Christmas All Over,” where the band ventures successfully into jazz and Motown, among other styles; the grooving and soulful tunes on JoJo’s “December Baby”; Barnaby Bright’s beautiful ballad-leaning “Bleak Midwinter”; Tommee Proffitt and his epic movie soundtrack approach to holiday fare on “The Birth of a King”; Terri Clark’s traditional country sound on “It’s Christmas…Cheers!”; Christian artist Francesca Battistelli’s “This Christmas”; A cappella country group Home Free’s “This Christmas”; the smooth jazz with a touch of world music sound of Nils Landgren’s: “Christmas With My Friends VII”; the peppy pop-rock soundtrack to “Happiest Season,” which includes contributions from an all-LGBTQ+ cast of artists, including Sia, Tegan & Sara, Anne-Marie and more; the jazzy and frequently breezy singing of Simone Kopmajer on her album, “Christmas;” and the mostly cheery set of holiday originals that range from jazz to pop to Latin on “New Holiday Classics” by Adrian Cunningham and La Lucha.

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